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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Car versus Bike

Dennis Fox

January 29 , 2004

Before heading out of town for the annual visit-the-folks Florida trek, I made it to the Transportation Board's December 17th meeting. I was curious to see what the Board planned to do about Brookline's two-hour limit on daytime parking. What I didn't expect was a collision between car and bike advocates.

Most board members seemed inclined to ease the parking rule a bit. They'll likely expand the two-hour rule to three hours or more. They also may exempt from the rule car owners who rent overnight parking spaces but have no parking during the day and others whose work or health requires leaving their cars unmoved all day. Members apparently hope this limited tinkering will dampen calls for more far-reaching changes, such as a neighborhood permit system that might energize residents who oppose the still-untouchable overnight parking ban.

All in all, this part of the agenda went smoothly, despite Board co-chair Michael Sandman's tendency to cut off people he disagrees with while struggling to maintain some semblance of chairmanlike impartiality.

As I was about to escape after the long discussion, a new item not on my copy of the agenda held me back. Before I knew it, Sandman moved to suspend the town's Bicycle Advisory Committee's status as a Transportation Board subcommittee "because they're advocates" (rather than advisors) whose "take-no-prisoner" style "doesn't provide the Board with useful information."

I wasn't sure what precipitated the heat. All I knew was that one board member after another began to criticize the Bicycle Advisory Committee, though some hoped something short of a complete break might fix long-standing problems. Members complained that the committee, originally appointed by the Board of Selectmen as subordinate to the Transportation Board, was now "self-selected" and worked independently. They accused bike committee members of being so focused on bicycles that they refused to compromise. Board co-chair Fred Levitan even insisted the bike committee is "out of touch with reality."

When board members finished their statements, they opened the topic for audience discussion. No one said anything for a moment. I finally asked if anyone from the Bicycle Advisory Committee was there to present their side of the story. "Of course," I was told, and finally the committee's co-chair, Anita Johnson, read a long response. Nothing symbolized the apparent break-down in communication so much as restricting the bike committee's role to that of audience.

Johnson and other bike committee members mirrored the board's complaints: The Transportation Board rather than the Bicycle Advisory Committee was unreceptive and unreasonable, they claimed, because the board was unsympathetic to bike committee goals. Board members focused only on cars, not on bicycles or public transit or walking. The Transportation Board's liaison to the bike committee (Michael Sandman) didn't attend committee meetings. The bike committee was ignored.

Tension escalated when board members accused committee members of claiming they were not consulted about certain board decisions even though they had been part of the decision making process but just didn't like the outcome. In response, committee members hemmed and hawed -- it appeared certain truths had indeed been shaded, justifying some of the board's disgust -- but they insisted the underlying problems originated with the board.

In the end conciliatory, bike committee members hoping to retain a formal role in transportation policy offered to revise their procedures and improve communication. But by a 4-2 margin the board turned them down. Levitan put it simply: "I can't work with them." When car hits bike, bike loses.

According to subsequent articles and letters in the Tab and Bulletin, some board members, along with David Friend, the town's influential Assistant Director for Transportation, have since confirmed the Bicycle Committee's charge that bicycles play little role in town transportation planning. That's simply unacceptable.

Regardless of how tense the battles over turf and personality, the Board of Selectmen should now ensure that transportation decision makers accommodate and even encourage bikers, not shrug them off. That's especially important in a town small enough to make healthy, environment-friendly biking easy, safe, and practical.

I might even try it myself if we could only get those damn cars out of the way.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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